LAS VEGAS — With freshman DeAndre Liggins transformed from object of insubordination to player of inspiration, Kentucky rallied to a 54-43 victory over West Virginia on Saturday night in the Las Vegas Invitational championship game.
Liggins, who refused to re-enter UK’s Friday night game against Kansas State, steadied the Cats in the face of West Virginia’s signature defensive pressure. He made key plays down the stretch as UK rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit to improve its record to 4-2.
West Virginia (4-1) lost because the opponent outplayed it at its own game: defense. The Mountaineers’ point total was a season low. The previous low was 76 against Delaware State.
UK smothered the Mountaineers most of the game as evidenced by 30.6-percent shooting from a team that had made more than half its attempts this season.
Jodie Meeks led Kentucky with 19 points and was named the tournament Most Valuable Player. Patrick Patterson added 15 points and 10 rebounds. And when Patterson again got in early foul trouble, Josh Harrellson chipped in a timely 12 points and career-high 10 rebounds. Patterson and Harrellson joined Meeks on the all-tournament team.
Liggins’ modest statistics (four points, two rebounds, three assists and four turnovers), hid what Patterson called the game’s “X factor.” Liggins tied his career high by playing 27 minutes.
Turnovers again plagued Kentucky early. Three times before the first TV timeout Kentucky turned over the ball. West Virginia sped to transition points each time.
Four times in the first eight minutes, the Mountaineers converted turnovers into points. WVU enjoyed a 10-2 margin in points off turnovers in the half.
Liggins entered the game with 11:14 left. His entry drew cheers from the UK fans, who apparently saw his refusal to enter Friday night’s game as no big deal.
When Liggins stepped to the line to shoot a one-and-one with 5:54 left, a fan could be heard yelling, “C’mon, ’Dre, we need you, baby.”
Gillispie and the Cats were also forgiving.
“I’m a hard guy, no question,” Gillispie said. “But I’m a loving coach. I love competitors. I love competitors who get mad as heck (when they don’t play).”
While conceding that Liggins could have “handled it better,” Gillispie hinted a behind-closed-doors punishment this coming week. The UK coach said he asked the players for their input.
“We’re not going to penalize the whole team,” he said in reference to sitting out Liggins. “It’s taken care of.”
Harrellson, who had scored only against Delaware State and Longwood so far this season, chipped in four first-half points. UK needed that contribution with Patterson on the bench in foul trouble.
West Virginia scored the final six points of the half to take a 26-16 lead at intermission.
That margin seemed significant considering the Mountaineers had a 28-1 record in games they achieved a double-digit lead in Bob Huggins two seasons as coach.
A pretty play established the 10-point margin. Alex Ruoff fired a fast-break pass that netted a Flowers layup. That gave WVU its 26-16 lead with 1:55 left.
Fittingly, the two teams combined for four turnovers and two missed shots the rest of the half. It was a defensive-minded, nothing-comes-easy game.
Kentucky didn’t score in the final 5:17. In that span, the Cats had five of their 13 first-half turnovers.
Absent of injury, the second half could hardly have started worse for Kentucky.
A 35-second shot-clock violation and Meeks’ third foul came in the first minute as West Virginia increased its lead to a game-high 12 points.
On the first possession of the half, the Cats appeared to want a shot for Meeks. But WVU’s Joe Mazzulla denied the passing lane. That left Michael Porter to dribble until the shot clock wound down to the final seconds. UK committed three turnovers before the first TV timeout of the second half.
Meeks fouled on WVU’s first possession, picking up his third foul with 19:09 left.
Trailing 32-20, Kentucky mounted an improbable rally built largely on defense. WVU had only one basket over a seven-minute stretch, and just five in the second half.
In that time, UK erased a 32-24 deficit and took a 39-36 lead.
A surprise move to zone by WVU helped the comeback. Meeks, who had only one basket to that point, drilled a three-pointer from the left side.
UK took its first lead when Patterson made both ends of a one-and-one with 9:02 left. He was fouled by Ruoff, who tried to rebound one of his many misses (three of 13 for WVU’s leading scorer).
A jumper/set shot by Liggins put Kentucky ahead 39-36 with 7:34 left. Wellington Smith answered with a three-pointer (his fourth of the season) 21 seconds later.
Liggins starred down the stretch. After a Harrellson layup put UK ahead 43-41, Liggins separated the ball from a driving Smith.
Liggins immediately cashed in by throwing a long fast-break pass that netted Patterson a three-point play that gave UK a 46-41 lead to protect in the final four minutes.
“Big, huge,” Gillispie said of the pass. “I was telling him to slow it down.”
Not following this coaching order did not bother Gillispie.
“His maturity is starting to show,” Patterson said of Liggins. “… He got us back to a steady pace.”
During the Kansas State game, Patterson was unaware of Liggins’ refusal to re-enter the game. And when he found out what happened, “I just wanted to know why he didn’t.”
His teammates spoke with Liggins between the games here.
“We said we all wanted him here and we wanted him to play,” Patterson said. “Coach wanted him here and wanted him to play.
“He had a little moment. That’s behind him.”
And what lay ahead for Liggins looked much brighter than 24 hours earlier.